SWEETWATER (CBSMiami) — Suspended Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño and lobbyist Jorge Forte entered not guilty pleas in court Friday morning on a single charge of conspiring to commit honest services fraud.
While the men pleaded not guilty to the conspiracy charge, they could still change their pleas to guilty at a later date.
Outside the courthouse Maroño, surrounded by family and friends, remained silent. His lawyer issued a brief statement.
“We only plan to comment about the case in court filings and we want the judicial process to work,” said attorney Armando Rosquete.
“George Forte deeply regrets his involvement in in this case. He will do everything he can to make up for it,” said Forte’s attorney.
Maroño and Forte were arrested in August.
According to U.S. Attorney Wilfredo Ferrer, Maroño received roughly $40,000 in bribes since 2002.
If convicted on the charge which accuses them of illegally receiving cash for official favors and concealing those payments from the public, Maroño and Forte could spend up to five years in prison.
Read the complaint against Maroño and Forte.
Former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi and lobbyist Richard Candia face similar kickback charges from the same sting operation in August that resulted in Maroño and Forte’s arrests.
Pizzi and Candia are scheduled for arraignment next Friday, according to CBS4 news partner, The Miami Herald.
Pizzi is expected to be indicted and face trial, the paper reported.
Read the complaint against Pizzi and Candia.
Candia, who flipped for federal investigators by assisting their undercover probe, is expected to pursue the same legal strategy as Maroño and Forte.
According to the initial criminal complaints, the two mayors and two lobbyists accepted thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for championing purported federal grant applications for their towns.
However, the men are accused of intending to line their pockets with the grant money — not to bring dollars into municipal coffers, according to FBI affidavits filed with the complaints.
Many of their conversations were recorded by undercover agents and on phone taps.
Those agents reportedly used Candia to approach Maroño and Pizzi, pitching an idea of making easy money by using the fictitious Chicago grant business to tap into an actual government agency.
In a CBS4 and El Nuevo Herald joint investigation, the questionable activities former Sweetwater Mayor Mauel Maroño was involved in during his time as mayor don’t stop with the conspiracy charge.
A letter obtained by CBS4 and El Nuevo Herald confirms Maroño helped his friend and former business partner secure a spot as one of the preferred towing companies in Doral.
Click here for the CBS4 and El Nuevo Herald joint investigation.
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